June 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Daniel Howes

New UAW boss faces King-size challenge

New UAW President Dennis Williams, left, talks with predecessor Bob King during the UAW Convention on June 3 at Cobo Center in Detroit. Williams promised members there will be 'no more concessions.' (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Dennis Williams says all the right things as new president of the United Auto Workers.

There will be “no more concessions,” a sop to members that also acknowledges the dramatically improved financial health of the hometown automakers, among others. He says there will be no confrontation unless confrontation is necessary, a bid to sound tough and reasonable at the same time.

It’s what Williams didn’t say in his introductory remarks, because it would be impolitic to do so, that looms as one of his larger challenges: correcting the mistakes left by his predecessor, Bob King, an idealist whose legacy outside the factory floor mostly amounts to one big missed opportunity.

King’s attempt to organize a “transnational” automaker, chiefly Volkswagen AG in Tennessee, failed. His push for a ballot measure to enshrine collective bargaining in the Michigan Constitution culminated in the birthplace of the UAW becoming a right-to-work state — a fact that could have meaningful implications for the union’s dues base when contracts with Detroit’s automakers expire next year and members can opt out.

His go-for-broke politicking, a reflection of King’s penchant to ignore the political advice of union insiders and friendly Democrats, yoked the union’s membership to political causes that arguably could prove anathema to its longer-term interests. Those include unflinching support of Obamacare, which could culminate in the loss of company-paid health care, as well as support for trade deals.

He backed ballot measures that backfired on union interests — chiefly the question that triggered the right-to-work law. Before submitting petitions to place Proposal 2 on the 2012 ballot, where it failed, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder personally advised King against it, saying, “Don’t kick the elephant.” He did it anyway.

King’s globe-trotting, allegedly in the service of forging dubious alliances underpinned by a vague agenda of “social justice,” burned precious cash in the union strike fund and weakened his credibility. How talks with German, Swiss or Italian union leaders could benefit dues-paying members in the United States is a question in search of an answer.

It mostly wouldn’t, if you accept two basic premises: first, that transnational alliances of organized labor have a scant record of success. And, second, that a union’s priorities generally are a distinctly national concern tied to myriad local considerations, a patchwork of parochial interests affected by a country’s national labor laws, its political culture and its history of labor-management relations.

Case in point: Just days before relinquishing the presidency to Williams, according to a source familiar with the situation, King spent three hours meeting with representatives of FIOM, the hardest-left (and smallest) of the five Italian unions representing auto workers at Fiat SpA.

He lobbied leaders of IG Metall, Germany’s powerful autoworkers’ union, to squeeze Volkswagen brass into unilaterally acquiescing to the UAW’s organizing effort in Chattanooga. But the blunt-force leverage, a common tactic not unfamiliar to King, failed to garner the needed votes and inflamed Tennessee’s Republican leadership class all at the same time.

It wasn’t cheap, either. The union is said to have spent the equivalent of thousands per head in its effort to organize VW down south. The UAW’s strike fund, a weapon all its own, is $630 million, down from $737 million when King assumed the presidency from Ron Gettelfinger.

“You can never know where Bob is really coming from,” the source said, repeating an observation widely held among Detroit’s three automakers. In “Dennis we have a higher degree of optimism” because he is believed to be an innovative negotiator more tightly focused on national issues that affect members and the cost competitiveness of the companies.

If Williams, 61, achieves anything in the first half of this four-year term, it will be to reorient the union hierarchy around what the union actually is — the members who carry their cards, wear its emblem and pay their dues to be represented at home, not at some international labor federation meeting in Geneva.

The ascension of Williams to the UAW presidency marks a turn for the UAW. He is the first to rise to president without leading one of the union’s Big Three departments; the first to ascend to the top of Solidarity House without having worked inside an assembly or part plant; the first in a long time to be leading the union during a time of relative financial health at its three most important companies.

More, he’s a critical part of a new wave of industry leadership. General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra and Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.’s CEO come July 1, will join Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne in facing Williams in what will be the most consequential contract talks in years.

Can Williams win the first base pay increase in more than a decade without eroding the industry’s new-found competitiveness? Will he make headway toward reducing, if not eliminating, the gap between legacy hourly wages and the second-tier pay, a goal of many members and Marchionne himself? Will he demonstrate, by the deal he does, justification for the first dues increase since 1967?

Answers to those and more won’t be known for more than a year — time for the new boss to demonstrate that he is different from the old one and his mixed legacy.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.